Representative David N. Cicilline kicked off the hearing saying the panel had conducted a year-long investigation and found that these companies have “wielded their power in disruptive, harmful ways”, which risk competition and the country’s democracy.
The panel, consisting of representatives from both Republican and Democrat parties, questioned the CEOs on matters ranging from privacy, killing competing startups by either stealing their technology or acquiring them, welding control on the market by abusing the gatekeeper status that some of these platforms hold, and more.
Internal emails haunted Zuckerberg again when he didn’t answer a question about whether Facebook copied its competitors. Representative Pramila Jayapal cited an internal email where Zuckerberg himself told Instagram’s co-founder Kevin Systrom that Facebook would build a copycat camera app, during the negotiations with Instagram. Emails were also unearthed where Zuckerberg was found to have aspired to buy Google.
Amazon was accused of similar behaviour, along with using data about third party sellers from its platform to kill small businesses. In addition, Representative Hank Johnson cited the widespread availability of counterfeit products on Amazon’s e-commerce platform, asking Bezos why the company isn’t responsible for it.
Bezos, in turn, said that Congress itself should address this issue, adding that the company itself also takes measures to avoid counterfeit products. “I would encourage this body to pass stricter penalties for counterfeiters and to increase law enforcement resources to go after counterfeiters,” he said.
Further, facing questioning from representative Jamie Raskin, Bezos acknowledged that Amazon does use its platform to promote its own products over rivals that don’t have the same features.
“I’m sure there are cases where we do promote our own products,” said Bezos, adding that it’s a common practice in business. “And so it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexa sometimes does promote our own products,” he said, answering a question about its voice assistant recommending Amazon Basics batteries over others.
Bezos also said that Amazon has policies to prevent the users of seller data to kill sellers, but couldn’t confirm that the policies have never been violated. Representative Lucy McBath even played a recording of a bookseller on Amazon, who claimed that Amazon’s practices had all but killed her business.
On the other hand, Apple’s Tim Cook was questioned on the 30% commission it charges developers on the App Store for payments. Cook argued that the entry doors to the App Store are wide open and that the 30% commission is much lesser than what developers would pay before the App Store came into being.
Asked whether he would increase commissions ever, Cook pointed out that the company had never increased commissions since the App Store’s launch. He also claimed that competition would keep Apple from doing so in future too.
For Google, most questions were targeted around its overall dominance over the Internet. The politicians asked Pichai questions about Google’s dominance on news and cited data suggesting it has been unfair to news publishers, how it uses user data, and whether it steals data from competing companies and websites.
Pichai also admitted, during the hearing, that while Google Search is automated, there is a manual component to how the company blacklists a website.
Additionally, the four CEOs were asked whether they believed that the Chinese government steals tech from US companies. To this, both Pichai and Cook said their companies’ data has never been stolen, to their first hand knowledge. However, Zuckerberg said it’s “well documented” that China steals tech from the US, while Bezos said he has heard reports of it, but hasn’t personally seen it. Pichai later added that in 2009 the company had suffered a cyber attack from the country.
In perhaps the easiest question in the hearing, all four CEOs pledged not to work with companies that use slave labour.
The four hour long hearing grilled all four companies, and showed that lawmakers were much more ready this time than in earlier hearings with such companies. While the outcome of this hearing will take time to materialise, the questions show a willingness by lawmakers to regulate these platforms. Several representatives on the panel also asked the companies why they shouldn’t be broken up, because they’re too big.
“Today we had the opportunity to hear from four of the most powerful companies in the world. This hearing has made one fact clear to me, these companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up, all need to be properly regulated and held accountable. We need to ensure that the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age. When these laws were written the monopolists were men named Rockefeller and Carnegie. Their controls of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it took to crush independent businesses and expand their own power. The names have changed, the stories are the same. Today the names are Zuckerberg, Cook, Pichai and Bezos. Once again their control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent business and expand their own power. This must end,” concluded Chairman Cicilline.
The subcommittee will next publish a report on its findings and suggest solutions to the problems before it, at a later date.